US-backed fighters battled the Islamic State group Thursday as they tried to push further into the jihadists' Syrian bastion Raqa, two days after finally entering the northern city.
The Syrian Democratic Forces alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters began the battle for the city earlier this week after seven months of fighting to surround Raqa.
On Wednesday, an AFP journalist entered the city with SDF fighters and witnessed heavy clashes in the Al-Meshleb neighbourhood, with IS firing mortar rounds towards the advancing forces.
He said part of the neighbourhood was under SDF control but US-led coalition planes were still carrying out strikes against IS fighters elsewhere in the district, one of the largest in Raqa.
SDF fighters were armed mostly with light weapons including Kalashnikovs, and were also returning mortar fire on IS positions.
The SDF did not allow journalists to return to the city on Thursday where fighting was continuing.
"Our troops are advancing in Al-Meshleb and control parts of it," said SDF spokesman Talal Sello.
"The international coalition forces are working with use on the ground in the battle for Raqa in a highly effective manner," he told AFP.
The US-led coalition said it had carried out 22 strikes near Raqa on Wednesday, hitting IS fighting positions and vehicles as well as a weapons cache and a training camp.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the SDF now controlled around two-thirds of Al-Meshleb and was some 400 metres (yards) from the neighbouring Al-Senaa district.
"IS has snipers monitoring Al-Meshleb neighbourhood and has laid mines extensively throughout it," the Observatory said.
US special forces
Fighting was also continuing on the western outskirts of the city, the monitor said, adding that US special forces were actively participating in battles on several fronts.
On Wednesday, an AFP correspondent saw coalition armoured vehicles parked among olive trees in the desert east of Raqa, covered with camouflage fabric.
A Pentagon spokesman, Eric Pahon, said "hundreds" of US military personnel were taking part in the Raqa offensive. It was unclear how many were US special forces.
Pahon said the role of special forces in Raqa remains unchanged. "They are still advising and assisting" the SDF, he said.
"We are accompanying SDF units moving in Raqa," he said, but "the SDF have the lead in the fight.
Pahon said up to 2,500 IS fighters were still holed up in Raqa.
SDF male and female commanders, dressed in fatigues and sporting colourful printed scarves wrapped around their heads, pored over maps on tablet devices to pinpoint targets.
Captured by the jihadists in 2014, Raqa has become synonymous with IS atrocities including beheadings and public displays of bodies, and also emerged as a hub for planning attacks abroad.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under IS rule in Raqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.
But thousands have fled in recent months, and the UN humanitarian office estimates about 160,000 people remain in the city.
Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently -- an anti-IS group -- has said conditions in the city are deteriorating, describing continuous bombardment and water and electricity outages.
Civilians who have escaped have described harrowing journeys and being targeted by IS as they fled.
The International Rescue Committee said this week it was "deeply concerned for the safety of civilians in Raqa," noting a drop in the numbers leaving the city.
That decrease could indicate IS intends to use remaining civilians "as human shields," the aid group said.
Civilians trapped in Raqa also face the risk of heavy coalition air strikes.
The number of reported civilian casualties in the coalition's strikes has swelled as the SDF offensive has intensified.
Along with Mosul in Iraq, Raqa was one of the twin pivots of the self-styled Islamic "caliphate" that IS declared nearly three years ago.
Iraqi forces backed by the coalition are battling IS in Mosul too. The jihadists there are now confined to a few neighbourhoods in the Old City.
The Syrian military has so far been absent from the battle for Raqa, though state news agency SANA said Thursday that the air force had targeted IS positions in the west of Raqa province.
The Observatory said the strikes were carried out by Syria's ally Russia.
Elsewhere on Thursday, US forces shot down a pro-regime drone in southern Syria after it fired at US-led coalition forces, said coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon.
No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred near the coalition's At-Tanaf garrison.
"It was armed and still had weapons on it when it was fired upon by US forces from an aircraft," Dillon said.
Date created : 2017-06-08